I thought you might like to read a sample of my novel before you decide if you want to buy it, so here, just for you are the opening chapters. Grab a cup of tea and a fistful of biscuits, and make yourself comfortable!
A Very Ordinary Madness - Chapter 1
Footsteps approach. I’d know the sound anywhere, the headmistress’s skyscraper heels clattering closer and closer, the echoing corridor heralding her arrival and delivering the fatal blow to these last precious moments I have before squalling, unruly children burst into my classroom ready to start another tedious term. I’m at the piano trying to capture the fleeting fragments of melody flitting through my mind. This might be the composition, the masterpiece that earns me my way out of here.
The door grinds open. I don’t look up, but fumble for the pencil perched behind my right ear to draw the notes onto my manuscript. Composing is getting harder. If I don’t record a melody as it dances on tiptoe through my head, it goes twirling off into the fathomless hole gaping ever wider in the middle of my aging brain. But the sound of two chattering women stepping into my classroom startles the snippet, and it darts out of reach. Damn. C, A, A♯, G. Or was it C, A♯, G? I put down my pencil and reach under my glasses to squeeze the bridge of my nose. It’s no good. I can’t remember.
“Ewan,” the headmistress says. “Hi.”
Her theatrical smile shows bleached white teeth. My lips twitch, but I manage not to laugh aloud. She is never so friendly, but with a new member of staff at her side, she’ll do anything to impress.
“And good morning once again, Mrs Phillips.”
We have already drawn swords in our first bout of term, and I see no point in pretending otherwise. I raise my voice because I love the acoustics in here. The sound comes bounding back to me like an exuberant dog which jumps up and licks my face, reminding me that no matter how many years I’ve spent down here, exiled in the chocolate-box prettiness of Cambridgeshire, it still links me with a silvery granite umbilical cord to home, to Aberdeen. I stare at the lines and notes on the page in front of me without seeing, lost in nostalgia for my old life. If only I could go back. No, that’s silly. I can’t, even if it was all a long time ago.
The headmistress coughs to remind me there is a point to her visit.
“If you’re not too busy Mr. Davies,”
I huff, brow raised, as she transforms her west-country yokel’s voice into lion-taming mode, tired of being ordered around and I’ve only been back at work two days and, let’s see now, forty-five minutes. This isn’t how I thought my life would turn out; this isn’t how I saw it. The younger ‘me’, my teenaged self, walked away a long time ago, shaking his head in disgust at just how much I’ve managed to screw things up. None of this is what he had in mind.
“This is your supply teacher, Mrs Cartwright. Mrs Cartwright, this is Ewan Davies, the Head of our Music Department.”
I look up from my manuscript with a sigh. Behind the headmistress’s cheap, chain store suit and dyed, ironed blonde hair, there lurks something flowery. Fantastic: another beaded, part-time do-gooder washes up in my department with nothing useful in hand but some fanciful idea of serving society by teaching its little darlings. I am about to turn back to my composition, when something startling sparks in my mind. It goes ‘spark, spark’, and ‘whoosh’ as recognition sets my memory alight. Oh god, no. Please, no. No.
I stand up. My piano stool goes toppling across the linoleum floor and lands with a crash I don’t hear. I am trembling, my face tingling, the skin prickling as though it were fizzing, while my heart tries to seize the initiative, punch its way out and run. What is she doing here? She shouldn’t be here. My body runs hot and cold and cold and hot, my ordered life melting into chaos. I grab hold of the piano with unsteady hands, and my manuscript falls from its stand, its pages floating to the floor like ragged silken strands from the tapestry of time ripped apart by this most unexpected and unwelcome collision of past and present. Shockwaves ripple through my cells. My mouth opens and closes, hanging like an attic trapdoor, but I can’t make a sound. Coherent speech is beyond me.
My ex-wife claps her hands together, and laughs, setting an assortment of silver bangles on her arms chinking with every move. She is almost dancing with delight, towering over the headmistress’s diminutive form in flat, fair-trade sandals. Her colourful, patterned skirt, which I know will have been handcrafted by a peasant woman on some far-flung hillside, swirls around her ankles, while an embroidered white tunic highlights wholesome, freckled skin glowing with self-righteous vegan health and vitality. Her mouth settles into a wide smile as she looks at me, her fingers fiddling with a silver moon pendant around her neck. I am gawping, I know, but I don’t have the nous to stop.
“You know each other?” The headmistress is bubbling with astonishment. I expect it amuses her to see me off-guard, and that’s all the prompting I need to set about retrieving my shattered senses.
“Uh, yes.” I step out from behind the piano. For a second I falter. What should I do? But then my body moves, as though possessed by a will of its own, and my legs cover the classroom in long, easy strides. Behavioural ‘norms’ are so ingrained, I reflect, we all do whatever it takes to act in what is deemed ‘an appropriate manner.’
“How are you?” I hold out my arms. Rebecca gives a squeak of delight, and throws herself into my embrace. We hug each other tight, outwardly correct while inwardly my mind is lurching, staggering from side to side across the plain of rational thought, searching for clues as to how best to proceed.
She draws back to look up at me, her blue-grey eyes blurry with tears, her clutching fingers creasing my lilac shirt sleeves.
“It’s been so long.”
Nine and a half years, but I decide not to say this aloud. It might sound like I’ve been counting.
“So how do you know each other?” The headmistress’s toothy smile has been downgraded to a frown, and I’m not surprised. After all, she’s already let it be known this morning what she thinks of my ‘contributory unpleasantness’ that led to the resignation of mousey Miss Harris, my previous ‘colleague’. Well, what did she expect? If I’d been allowed to interview Miss Harris in the first place, she would never have come to work here, fresh out of teaching college and wide-eyed with fear. She barely lasted a term. I need someone who can grasp my methods without the need for second explanations, someone who will work as hard as I do. Standards don’t achieve themselves.
“You aren’t some long-lost, feuding relatives, I hope.”
Everything in me sinks. I go to speak. I open my mouth to shepherd out words, because this is the part where I speak up. This is my cue to say ‘actually Mrs P, this is Rebecca my ex-wife and no, I can’t work with her, I’d rather work with the, frankly, pathetic Miss Harris’, but I don’t. Instead, I honour the plea in Rebecca’s eyes, and nod to the stirring in my soul whose seductive whispers are suggesting this is a twist of woolly, romantic fate, my beloved returned to my arms after all these years. I don’t believe in fate, but it’s a pretty story.
“We met at university,” Rebecca obliges, her eyebrows arching, warning me not to contradict, but that part is true. I make myself smile and nod, hoping the headmistress will fall for Rebecca’s nonchalant tone. I daren’t look at Mrs Phillips for fear I see her reaching for the dial which will turn up the heat of her scrutiny, her terrier’s eyes unearthing their own conclusions. Rebecca bites her lip. She’s always done that. Doesn’t she realise she might as well slap a neon sticker with the word ‘guilty’ onto her forehead?
“Haven’t seen each other for years though, have we?” I say, trying to throw the scent.
“And look at you, you haven’t changed a bit,” Rebecca grins, clapping her hands together. “Well, apart from the grey hairs.” Her hand reaches out to touch the silver I try to ignore snaking through the auburn, but she thinks better of it and recoils.
She draws her hand away, and steps back. I breathe out, realising I have been holding my breath, afraid of the impression we are creating. Rebecca turns to the headmistress who, I fear, isn’t sure how to interpret what she’s just witnessed, and mouths some platitude about how great it’s going to be working alongside me. I say nothing. I say nothing because I have missed my chance. I missed my chance to speak, and now I am complicit in the lie. It’s going to be great working alongside Rebecca. No, really, it is. Perhaps if I say it often enough it will be true.
Mrs Rebecca Cartwright waits until the headmistress’s heels have clattered out of earshot, then she lets out a whoop of delight, and throws herself back into my arms. We hug, we laugh, and I am wondering what would happen if I were to try and kiss her, when she steps back, her eyes wide and serious.
“Ewan, thank you.”
“For what?” I shrug, sifting through my recollection of the last five minutes for what I have done that warrants thanks. It is a fruitless search.
“For not telling the headmistress.”
Ah, that. She is wringing her hands together, threading her fingers over and over again, the silver bangles clinking and clunking.
“I’ve been qualified for six months now but it’s been impossible to find a job. The agency said this might be permanent if I make the right impression, and with it being in Thatchington, it’s so handy for home.”
I smile to myself. No one has ever, or would ever, describe my ex-wife as ‘laconic’. She burbles away letting anything and everything flow from her mouth. I wonder if it’s occurred to her it might be harder for her to keep quiet about our past than me.
“Thank you for giving me a chance. If you’d told her we’ve been married, that would have been the end of that. You do think we’ll be okay working together, don’t you?”
She looks at me with her beautiful eyes sparkling beneath their long, luxurious lashes. I’m holding my breath again. In the last few years, the pain of missing her has been growing weaker. Today, it’s as though we have never been apart. And when she looks at me through those eyes, not the hard eyes that accused and ridiculed, I will grant her anything. This, she knows.
“Oh please,” I scoff, loving my own show. I’m such a performer. But then I’ve spent years polishing my routine. Lying comes as easy to me as breathing. There have been more times than I can remember when it’s been almost as important.
“That was all such a long time ago. Of course we can work together. And nobody needs to know.” I’m almost convincing myself.
“Nobody needs to know,” she echoes, pondering my words. “Thank you Ewan. You’ve always been a kind soul. Thank you.”
She reaches out and takes both my hands. Her eyes glisten, teary. I am thinking to myself that if this were a film, the music would be sweeping to a crescendo as the handsome, though somewhat misunderstood, hero leans in to kiss his lady. But I see something flit across Rebecca’s face, and the bitter voice of experience asserts she isn’t sharing in my fantasy.
“You know, I haven’t asked.”
Actually, I know what she’s thinking. It’s a gift, you see. I can hear other people’s thoughts. Not just anyone’s thoughts, you must understand, before you start pitying me for being privy to the hormonal meanderings of a class-full of bored teenagers, just special people; people who have something important to say to me. So I know she’s going to ask if I’m married, and I’m going to feel embarrassed when I have to say no while she’s probably ensconced in a perpetual game of ‘happy-bloody-families’ with some fabulous guy and a pack of starry-eyed kids. Great. Why does it always come down to this? If they don’t want to know what amazing job you perform, then it’s do you have a successful home life. Of course, she doesn’t know about Marcia; that was after she left. I’m glad she doesn’t know about Marcia, come to that. There would be no question of her being able to look at me, never mind talk to or work with me if she knew what I’d done.
“How are you?”
I misunderstand. On a subconscious level, this is probably intentional.
“Well I’m fine of course,” I chuckle at her serious expression, her searching eyes, and the way she’s holding onto my hands, refusing to let me pull away while she scans my face for the true answer. Ah, wait a minute, she wants the true answer. Damn. I had hoped she might have forgotten, but how could I ever expect her to forget about that? Unease starts knotting up the soft tissue deep down inside my belly, stiffening my body. I’m not safe any more. She knows too much about me.
“No, how ‘are’ you Ewan? You know what I mean.”
This time I yank my hands away, afraid she might insist on finding out for herself, ripping back my sleeves to inspect my scars. But there’s nothing to see she hasn’t seen before. Marcia’s death saw to that.
“Rebecca, I’m fine.” But she’s got that look on her face, her lips are pursed, her eyes narrowed as I take a step backwards. Both her eyebrows rise as she cocks her head, and I realise I’ve got my arms folded behind my back. You can almost hear a clank as her brain adds two and two, but makes it into a number she thinks she knows. Too late I let my arms dangle by my sides. She goes on looking through critical eyes.
“I’m telling you now; I can’t do this any more. I can’t go on like this. You need help. And if you don’t make an appointment to see the doctor, then this marriage is over.”
“Fine ‘fine’, or ‘oh yes Rebecca, let’s pretend everything’s great’?”
So that’s it: my ex-wife thinks she can breeze into my classroom, charm me into letting her stay, and then resurrect the most embittered argument of our married life. It’s been nine and a half years. I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to pick up the gauntlet. And I do not have to explain myself to anyone.
I ponder my arsenal for a suitable response. There is the flat ‘I’m fine, thank you’ which could be delivered in a stern tone of reproach designed to deter further questioning. There is the spikier ‘mind your own business’ which I think I favour, but will heap fuel on her suspicions. And then there is the, frankly, explosive ‘what concern is that of yours’ which is almost wriggling to be let out of my mouth.
This is what I choose. I rather like it. A two-pronged defence, it’s cutting yet evasive.
“You know, that’s not a conversation I would have with any other member of staff in this school. And you’re here to do a job, not nit-pick over things that may, or may not have happened in the past.”
Oh, but I’m good. Her cocky, composed air crumples, and I congratulate myself. It isn’t without reason I’m widely if not unanimously viewed as an awkward bastard amongst the staff. It’s nothing to me if I leave people huffing and scowling in my wake. We’re here to do a job. Standards don’t achieve themselves, or by being all cosy and chummy drinking tea together in the staffroom, pretending we care about one another. But then she arches her left eyebrow, and I remember I’ve never won an argument with her yet.
“Well then, far be it for me to enquire after your state of health. But being unable to answer the question in a civil manner tells me as much as I want to know.”
I flap and flail, my tongue stammering as I struggle for an answer, but, as usual, Rebecca is serene in her victory. She holds up both hands to silence me.
“Subject closed,” she says. “Now, you’d better go through what do you want me to do this morning.”
Outfoxed, out-manoeuvred: checkmate to my ex-wife. Why is she here? I stand staring, immobile while inwardly I am awash in a seething ocean, clinging to a life-raft, my sanity, which feels like it’s dissolving in my hands. It had been flat calm up until now. In fact, I’ve been becalmed for years, bobbing along, contented with the numbness of nothing happening, safe in monotony. But now the sky has turned from soft grey to purplish-black, the water is boiling with a sudden violent swell, and I’ve been pitched overboard, all in the space of the last half-hour, the last half-hour in which I had expected to be happily composing, conjuring music around me as I floated in peace on my sea. I look at Rebecca, and she folds her arms, waiting.
I turn to my desk, and shiver.
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